Many of you have read this story, and for you who have, I'm sorry (at least, a little bit...). But here goes (at least, the first half...).
Jenny was so tired, so tired. The teenager surveyed the cold, impersonal room in which she and her four-year old sister rested on the bitter January morning. Both were exhausted, having slept very little in the past 72 hours. Jenny lovingly stroked Sara’s golden blond hair, thinking her sleeping sister looked like an angel, calm, peaceful, and at last—content as her head rested comfortably in Jenny’s lap. She was glad Sara was asleep. In many ways, Jenny wished her sister would sleep forever, that way she would not have to look into those innocent eyes and tell her again that her mother would never again be coming home.
The large spacious room’s dreary atmosphere greeted the haggard fifteen-year old and her sleeping sister. Jenny watched as employees for the state’s family services milled about hallways created with cold gray cubicle walls. Florescent lighting cast a dull pale over the floor, illuminating gray walls, gray chairs, gray desks, and gray filing cabinets. Only sporadic splashes of color appeared sparingly in several framed posters showing beautiful children, smiling and happy, and below the cherubic faces were slogans promoting adoption and foster home programs. The children’s faces seemed to mock Jenny as she searched for comfort in a comfortless room.
Though several voices could be heard in the large space, one voice caught Jenny Harrocks’s attention, that of Ms. Eileen Carter, the government employee assigned to the Harrock’s case. Eileen’s cubicle was in full view of the area in which Jenny and Sara waited. Another call came in and Eileen answered it on the second ring. It seemed she had not taken a break all morning; that phone never stopped ringing. When other conversations came to a lull, Jenny could hear what Eileen was saying to callers lucky enough to get her on the phone.
It was only 10am, but Eileen and the girls had already had a long day. They were picked up early from their foster home, a place where they’ve stayed since their mother, Jill Horrock died. On this morning Eileen drove them to her office and gave them something warm to eat, though neither girl was particularly hungry the food went mostly untouched. They had been in those same gray chairs waiting for some sign from Eileen for almost two hours. Thankfully Sara was still asleep.
With Eileen still on a call, Jenny re-lived the past few days over and over in her mind, the thousands of feelings traveled as if on some superhighway from her head to her heart and back again. The thought of her mother being dead would have caused Jenny to sob, but tears were hard to find—so many had already been shed. And poor Sara, her younger sister must have cried for hours last night until she ultimately fell into a fitful sleep, waking every ½ hour until a call from Eileen signaled the beginning of yet another horrid day.
“Jenny,” Eileen’s voice broke the dull stupor of Jenny’s thoughts. “Dear, can you come over here please?” Jenny looked up to see Eileen standing in her cubicle, waiving for Jenny to come over and see her. As Jenny stretched to see the caseworker, a sharp pain in her neck told the teenager she too had slept in the uncomfortable gray chair, waking only occasionally as different phones rang throughout the floor.
“Honey,” Eileen said as another call came in. Swearing under her breath, Eileen quickly answered the phone the same way she had done dozens of times already this morning. “Eileen Carter. How may I help you?” Pause. “Oh, Mrs. Talbot. Yes, I did get your message and I’ve been trying to get a spare moment to give you a call. Listen; are you going to be home in ½ hour?” A pause. “Yes, I promise. I, or someone else will call you back. I’m about to take a break and before I get back on the phone, yours will be the first number I call. Is that okay? Marge—you’re a saint! Yes, I will definitely call you back.”
Eileen grabbed the telephone headset and yanked it off her head. She continued standing when she spotted Jenny sitting in her gray chair, her little sister asleep at her lap. The two made eye contact and something in Jenny’s sad eyes told Eileen she needed more than 30 minutes for this fragile broken family. Before she even sat down, Eileen placed the headset on her desk and slowly made her way to the waiting area where the two girls rested.
Jenny wondered what her assigned state worker thought about she and Sara. There must be some file somewhere with all their information. What did it say? Did it say Jenny would be turning 16 in three months and that she had so looked forward to getting her driver’s license? Did it say Sara’s favorite color was red and that the holiday she looked forward to more than anything else was Easter because she loved bunnies? Probably not, she thought. No, their file most likely contained only information about where and when they were born, where they’ve lived, and how much money their mom made (or didn’t make) before she died.
In fact, Eileen did have a brief synopsis of the two sister’s grim history from a file she’d read the day before. Jenny’s biological father left his wife a few days after Jenny’s birth. Little Sara’s father died just over a year ago, the victim of an accident. And now the only family these two girls ever knew had was gone. The half-high walls which formed the many cubicles crammed into the drab office had heard many stories, some happy, but most were not. Jenny Harrock’s case was by no means the worst Eileen had ever heard, but that fact made it no less tragic.
Eileen met the girls for the first time the previous night as she drove them in the dead of night to a foster home where the two would hopefully get some sleep. The girl’s appearance, as Eileen picked them up only hours later after their mother's passing, told the caseworker any meaningful sleep would have to wait for another time. These and many other thoughts raced to take control of Eileen’s emotions as she approached the girls. But as she had done many times before, Eileen fought to regain an element of control over the God-given feelings all human beings possess, feelings to help one another in order to preserve the species. If Eileen went to pieces at every sad story that passed her desk, she would be useless as a caseworker and unable to help anyone. This ultimate irony crossed Eileen’s mind many times—she actually had to care less about her clients in order to do more for them.
Jenny saw Eileen walking towards her; a sense of both relief and terror gripped this girl who in the space of a very short time had matured beyond her 15 years. The fact that Eileen wanted to speak with her brought Jenny out of the pattern of short naps she had experienced over the past two hours. She was now fully awake, preparing for what horrors lie ahead for she and her sister.
“I’m so sorry, Jenny.” Eileen said as she knelt before Jenny. “I didn’t realize Sara was asleep. Don’t get up.” Eileen’s voice was calm, reassuring, but also lacking an element of what Jenny would call genuine concern. “I know I’ve been busy with all these phone calls, but my assistant manager just came in and so I can take a break and work on your case.
A case? My case? Jenny went from being a parent-less teenager, to the only family a four-year old had in an instant. And now she’s just a case? The downtrodden look Jenny gave Eileen communicated perfectly how she was feeling.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” Eileen said, and for the first time since the two women had met, Eileen appeared at a loss for words. “I will be right back, I promise,” she said. This time, something that had been missing in Eileen’s voice was there—compassion.
Jenny watched as Eileen disappeared into the maze of cubicles. A tall woman, Eileen’s head rose above the gray walls allowing Jenny to follow her wherever she walked. When she stopped, a co-worker, almost as tall as Eileen, stood up and the two spoke. After conversing a moment, the new woman glanced at Jenny, spoke with Eileen a moment, then sat down. As Eileen drew near, she walked as if a burden had been released from her shoulders. She looked relaxed; she looked at peace.
“I just spoke to Alice. She’s agreed to take all my appointments, so for the rest of the day I’m all yours.
And then Eileen smiled, a smile that brought tears to Jenny’s eyes, tears she didn’t know were there. The gray floor on which the chairs rested had felt many tears, each of Jenny’s were pure, innocent, and came at a price. Eileen gently hugged Jenny so as to not wake her little sister. It took but a moment for Jenny to stop sobbing and regain her composure, and when that time came, Eileen knew work needed to be done.
“Jenny, listen. I know there’s a lot of things going through your mind right now, but the first thing we need to do is find a place where you and your sister can stay. This stay may be a short time, but the best thing for everyone is to find a permanent, stable home where you and Sara will be able to grow up safe and healthy. We first try and find suitable homes with members of your family. Sometimes we have more options, and sometimes there are very few. Unfortunately, your situation is more the latter. There’re not a lot of family members out there for you and your sister. Do you understand what I’m saying, honey?”
Without speaking, Jenny nodded her head. Though Jenny had stopped crying, a lone tear fell slowly down her cheek.
“Good,” Eileen said, her voice displaying an immerging sense of hope. In Eileen’s experience, the quicker a client accepted the situation in which they found themselves, the quicker the really tough decisions could be made. “Now there are some things that we need to consider. You and your sister have different dads and because of that, there will be other families involved. But like I said, our goal is to keep families together.” Eileen pointed to Jenny then Sara as she said the word, families.
A smile came to Jenny’s face. If she had nothing else left in the world, as long as she had Sara, somehow things would be okay. The comforting feeling would be short lived, however, as Eileen continued speaking.
“I’ve been trying to reach your father all morning. He’s not the easiest man to find.”
My father! The words screamed in Jenny’s head. Her body stiffened at the mention of her father and Jenny hoped this reaction didn’t wake Sara.
“Why my father,” Jenny said confused. “I don’t even know him. I don’t know where he’s living or if he’s even alive at all. I don’t know anything about him.”
“I know, Jenny, but he is your closest living relative.” Eileen tried to be positive. “We know he’s alive, or was last spring. We know he was working in here in town for a construction company, but they said he quit that job in June. We don’t know where he went after that, but I’ll keep looking.”
“Do we have to go live with him?” The question was brutally honest.
“Well, we don’t know that yet. There’s a lot—and I mean a lot—of things to consider before that decision can be made.”
Eileen continued talking about government regulations and qualifications a guardian must have in place in order for legal transfer of guardianship, but Jenny heard none of it. All she could think of was the man who left her mother only days after she was born and the possibility she may actually have to live with this man. The thought was almost too much to bear.
“So that’s why I’ve had so much trouble trying to find him,” continued Eileen. “I’ve got a call out to my friend with the courts to see if he’s been picked up lately. If that doesn’t work, well, we’ll see what we do at that point.”
“I don’t know if I want to live with that man,” said Jenny, unsure of so much, but sure of what she didn’t want.
“Jenny, I know. I’m not saying you’re going to live with him, but he does have legal considerations in this whole thing. He may not be able support you, but if there are relatives in his family, we may have to look into those options.”
Options—the word held new meanings now. Last week options for Jenny meant what outfit she would wear to school, or with whom she would share her lunch hour, or even which streets she would walk in order to get home everyday after school. Now options include what she’s going to do for the rest of her life, or where she’s going to live, or what will be the best for Sara. A desire to completely give up and disappear into the synthetic fabric of the cold unforgiving gray carpet overwhelmed her, but Jenny fought back the depressing thoughts. No! She had to be strong, if not for herself, for Sara.
“Will I have any say in what happens to us?” A more defiant and confident Jenny asked.
“I really can’t answer that right now. We have to find out where you’re going to stay, and not for next month or next year, but even for tonight. The house where you and Sara stayed last night is not a permanent arrangement.”
“I’m going to tell you right now that I will have a say in what happens to Sara. She’s my responsibility and if you do something I feel isn’t the best for her, you’ve got a fight on your hands.” The resolution shown from Jenny’s steady voice and ridged body language burst through all the pain and despair and depressing grey surrounding everything in room like the piercing light from a lighthouse during a terrible ocean storm.
That’s right! You fight, girl! thought Eileen, a sense of pride swelling in Eileen when she saw the fire inside this teenager ignite from kindling and burn with an infectious heat. Over the years, Eileen saw her share of examples of people who gave up over situations like this. Inevitably giving up ended up being the worse decision people made. When they give up, there’s nothing left for them, no desire, no chance, no hope, and a terrible situation becomes exceedingly worse.
“Good for you, Jenn,” Eileen said almost in a whisper. “I’ve got to make a call right now. There’s a contact that might have information for me. Do you need anything? Would you like a Coke or something?”
“No, I’m good, but I think Sara might want some juice when she wakes up.”
“No problem. If I need you, I’ll come over. If she wakes up before then, just come over to my desk and I’ll get something for both of you to eat.”
Jenny watched Eileen return to her desk. The force in which she spoke to Eileen about Sara’s future surprised even her. For the first time since her mother passed away 26 hours earlier, Jenny felt good about their chances.
She then thought about her father.
There was always something about this man that intrigued her. Jill Horrocks never spoke ill toward the man who abandoned her those many years ago. When Jenny was younger she asked her mother questions about her father all the time. As time passed and Jill’s responses never quite satisfied the girl’s natural curiosity and Jenny eventually learned that most of her questions about her dad would forever remain unanswered. Jenny had many friends whose fathers did not take an active role in their lives. Some forgave the men who left families for a myriad of reasons. Others hated these men and everything about them. Jenny remained neutral as to how she felt, feeling she could not judge a man she’d never met. Now, however, opinions began to crystallize with the realization she and Sara may be shortly living with this man, a man she never knew.
“Umm,” a whisper of a voice rose from Sara as her tiny arm straightened and her little fist opened stretching her small figures outward. The child stirred and Jenny felt a love for her sister she didn’t think was possible. A small laughed escaped Jenny’s smile as she watched the little angel awake to a world void of color. For Jenny the sound of Sara waking up illuminated the cold room, bringing a sense of warmth she so desperately needed. If nothing else, Sara would save them both.
“Hi, Sunshine,” Jenny said generally please to have her sister, her teammate, her friend with her. Nothing was going to break up the Horrock Girls!
“Are you hungry?” Sara answered the question with a smile, an even larger stretching of all her limbs, and a low moaning ‘yes.’
“Good. Eileen said she has something for us to eat. We need to go see her.”
“Yes!” came the reply. Sara’s enthusiasm made Jenny feel even better. They may not have much, but as the two walked hand-in-hand to Eileen’s desk, they had each other.
Jenny looked at her little sister; Sara looked so much like her dad, she thought. Mark Horrock was a good man and Jenny missed him very much. He had been the father—the only father Jenny knew. Mark’s death had been hard on the family, but not so much on Sara. She had just turned three-years old when her dad fell forty feet on a construction site and died in the hospital five days later. Sara didn’t understand exactly what had happened, though Jenny awoke several times to the sounds of her little sister crying in the middle of the night after Mark’s death.
It was hard for Jenny, but the accident affected none more than her mother, Jill. For the first time in Jenny’s life, she saw her mother know true happiness, and that happiness began the day Jill first met Mark. The couple met at traffic court, of all places, and hit it off immediately. Within three months, Jill married for the second time; it was Mark’s first marriage.
Just when Jenny thought her mother could not be happier, Sara was born a year later and then things really went well for her mother. Mark’s upstart roofing business was taking off, mom got a raise at the law office where she worked. At last, Jenny started to feel like a normal girl, with the same problems as all her friends. Looking back, those were the happiest times in Jenny’s short and troubled life.
It was only six months after Mark’s death that Jill found out she was sick. The cancer that ultimately destroyed this once strong woman attacked with such vigor. The doctors, who once spoke only of positive outcomes concerning Jill’s condition, finally admitted they were losing the battle for her life and in the end the two daughters helplessly watched as their guardian, their protector, their confidant and friend quickly wither like a dry leaf in an autumn storm until only a shell of her former self remained. Jill was hospitalized for only two days before her soul finally left the earthly bonds holding all living things together and traveled free among the stars. The fact that this event took place just less than two days ago ran though Jenny’s mind as they approached Eileen’s desk. The last 24 hours felt like a lifetime.
“Well, hello! How’s my sleeping angel doing?” Eileen said as she patted Sara’s shoulder. “I was wondering if you were going to sleep all day long. Did you have a good nap?”
Shyly, Sara bowed her head and smiled at the attention. “Yes. Thank you,” the small voice responded.
“Your big sister said when you wake up, you might like some juice and something to eat. Is that right?”
“Yes. Thank you,” the same small timid voice answered.
“Good. Do you see that nice lady waving at us over there?” Eileen pointed to the opposite end of the room where another woman with a kind face was waving at Jenny and Sara.
“Yes,” this time Sara’s voice grew in strength.
“Her name is Katie and she has some juice and treats for you. Do you think you can go over and get something yummy to eat?”
This time Sara just nodded her head.
“Sara, darling. I need you to go over and Katie will help you. I’ve just got to talk to Jenny for just a second. Can you go over and see Katie by yourself?”
Again a nod.
“Okay Sara.” And that’s all it took. Neither Sara nor Jenny had much to eat earlier and Jenny felt a sharp pain of hunger as she watched her little sister quietly walk over to Katie’s cubicle.
Eileen watched as Sara began leave, then she turned her attention to Jenny. “Jenny, I know you’re probably starving, too, but I wanted to talk to you alone for a moment. I was able to find your father.”
The sharp hunger pains disappeared, replaced with a sickening nausea in the pit of her stomach which seemed to grow quickly until it caused her legs to feel weak. She felt the need to sit and did so without delay.
“I wasn’t able to talk to him, but I confirmed it was him and he is living right here in the city.” Eileen saw Jenny’s reaction to the news and allowed a pause to help her young client accept this information.
“I left a message for him to call me back, and his wife said he should be calling me in a few minutes. I was wondering if you wanted to talk to him.”
His wife? You mean he got married again? she thought. Jenny was glad she was sitting down. All her life Jenny imagined her biological father would never get remarried. If her mother weren’t good enough for him, then no other woman would--or could--be. The thought proved extremely painful to a girl already reeling from many painful thoughts. Again Eileen’s voice brought Jenny back to the present.
“Of course, you don’t have to talk to him, but if he calls, I wondered…well…I just wondered if you would.” Eileen paused to allow Jenny to respond. The silence was shattered by the familiar digital sound of Eileen’s phone, the piercing noise indicating another call had found it’s way to Eileen’s desk. Jenny and Eileen looked at each other and even though dozen’s of calls had already reached this specific phone on this painful morning, both women knew who was on the other end of this particular call. It was him; Jenny’s father had called back.